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How to do more with less (water)

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Solvay plants are gearing up to reduce water usage

The current focus on climate change is of course completely justified, but we can’t forget other pressing environmental issues such as the preservation of water, a resource just as precious to life as breathable air. That’s why, among the sustainability objectives outlined in Solvay’s recent One Planet plan, we didn’t forget to include a significant reduction of our freshwater withdrawals.

A strong ambition for water preservation

You might not realize this, but all of Solvay’s plants are equipped with their own water withdrawal systems. Independently from public networks, they take what they need from surface waters (rivers and lakes), underground water tables or the sea. There are two uses for this water: chemical processes and cooling. The particularity with Solvay is that one of its main activities, making sodium carbonate (or soda ash), requires a lot of water, which makes the Group a very large consumer.

That being said, “we are committed to doing more to optimize our water usage,” says Alain Michel, Solvay’s Head of Climate and Energy Transition. “Our target is a 25% reduction of our freshwater intake by 2030 (compared to 2018), with an intermediate target of -15% by 2025.” (Note: some coastal plants pump water directly from the sea for their cooling needs; these withdrawals are not considered here). Such ambitious targets match the objectives the Group has set for itself in other domains such as protecting biodiversity, promoting the circular economy and of course reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.


Water efficiency is the key

So how do you manage to use one-quarter less water while continuing to grow your business and chemical processes that need great quantities of water to function? “We have two main levers to reduce our water intake: improving efficiency and recycling,” explains Alain. “In terms of efficiency, we know from experience that a lot can be done. And for recycling, we are going to make significant investments in certain key sites.”

Improving water use efficiency across all of Solvay’s facilities, big and small, should be enough to reach 50% of the Group’s reduction target, Alain estimates. “Water has always been cheap, so we’ve never traditionally paid enough attention to saving it,” he says. “But it’s clear that regulatory constraints are only going to increase in the years to come. And it’s not just about big investments: implementing water-monitoring programs can change everything.”

One simple example: when water is used for cooling, you can quite easily optimize the desired temperature and cool the equipment just the right amount. At present, cooling tends to be often excessive: temperatures don’t need to be lowered as much as they are, which means that lots of water could be saved by cooling less while still ensuring processes function correctly and safely.

“Certain sites have already made significant efforts, generally due to restrictions enforced by local authorities,” continues Alain. “Such is the case at our soda ash plants in Rosignano, Italy and Paulinia, Brazil. Water scarcity forced these sites to use less water, and the same could be done elsewhere.”

We’ve never traditionally paid enough attention to saving water, but it’s clear that regulatory constraints are only going to increase in the years to come. Implementing water-monitoring programs can change everything.

Alain Michel, Head of Climate and Energy Transition, Solvay

Local actions to global commitment

The second lever to reduce Solvay’s consumption of freshwater is recycling. This means installing hefty installations to clean and re-use water and therefore withdraw less of it from the environment, so mainly the highest consuming plants are concerned – once again, especially soda ash sites.

As mentioned, Solvay’s Soda Ash business unit is its big water consumer. In fact, it is responsible for half of Solvay’s water intake, just because of the chemical process of making sodium carbonate, of which Solvay is the historical leading manufacturer. These six plants located in Europe are the ones where water-recycling installations are being considered – when efforts haven’t already been made. “So far, actions have been local”, sums up Alain. “The idea now is to expand what has been done site by site into a Group-wide effort, as part of our global commitment.”